Review: In a powerful "hamlet", a fragile prince faces his enemies

A lot of Hamlets I’ve seen are tricky. Some crazy. Narcissistic, distant, even pretentious. Less common is a Hamlet that is tender an...


A lot of Hamlets I’ve seen are tricky. Some crazy. Narcissistic, distant, even pretentious. Less common is a Hamlet that is tender and romantic and painfully vulnerable, like a petal falling from the head of a flower at the end of its bloom.

When Alex Lawther’s frail Danish prince drags himself onto the stage in Robert Icke’s modern production of “Hamlet,” which kicked off Tuesday night at the Park Avenue Armory, he is reminded of 19th-century poets Arthur Rimbaud and Percy Shelley, a bright but discouraged young man. who seems intent on his grief – and a tragic end.

Over the past decade, Icke has gained notoriety for his heightened and contemporary adaptations of classics. This “Hamlet” played in the West End in 2017, with the hot priest sized package of magnetizing charisma known as Andrew Scott in the lead. It was one of the best Hamlets I’ve ever seen – although, as in so many other takes, the focus is on its brooding and quips more than its emotional depth.

Lawther, best known for his role in “The End of the __ing World”, lacks Scott’s starry flair, but he does possess his own kind of wise charisma; it attracts you while withdrawing into itself. Accordingly, this rendition honors Hamlet not just as indulgent melancholy, but as grappling with a rightful and heartbreaking loss.

We start with a fancy wedding party. (Hildegard Bechtler did the elegant sets and costumes.) Beyond a wall of sliding glass panels, we see Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (Jennifer Ehle), and her new husband, her uncle Claudius ( Angus Wright), dancing among balloons and strings of lights. Dressed in a black suit, Lawther moves slowly across the stage and sits close to the action, but away from it. He roughly rubs his palms against her thighs, as if to remove the tissue from her body.

Throughout the heavy 3 hour and 45 minute production, Lawther fully embodies Hamlet’s dejection, shuffling around like a wayward toddler, with slightly bent knees and a constant rocking that makes him appear close to collapsing. Planning revenge on his scheming uncle, he holds a gun tilted, as if his arm is being manipulated by someone else pulling the strings above the stage.

And when he speaks, it’s in a slow, warbling chant that’s both contemplative and idiosyncratic, especially when he pauses mid-sentence as if his mind is gasping with existential thoughts.

Although the readings of particular lines sometimes become monotonous, he escapes from them, bursting into a startling fit of mania. And Lawther dons the famous “What a job is man!” monologue with poetic resonances, passing from wonder to despair by a slow articulation and an emphatic rhythm.

Icke, whose only wife “Enemy of the People” played at the Armory last year and whose “1984” had a brief Broadway run in 2017, brings a cinematic eye to the proceedings, using foreground and background to create dimension. In a clever staging, Hamlet lingers in the foreground as the king and queen canoe in the back and the guards run halfway between them, just after catching sight of the former king’s ghost .

At the same time, the director makes curious tweaks to the characters, giving Polonius a touch of madness and portraying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a couple clearly at odds over how they should respond to the royal demand to watch over Hamlet.

Women, in particular, are neglected. Gertrude is unreadable, despite Ehle’s punchy line-readings, and Ophelia’s descent into madness happens faster than you can say ‘something rotten’ – doing Kirsty’s perfectly suited delicate companion a disservice. Rider at Lawther’s Hamlet.

As Claudius, Wright looks self-consciously composed as a politician but misses some of the menace, while Peter Wight relies too heavily on Polonius’ awkwardness. Luke Treadaway, however, makes the most of Laertes’ transformation: from polished gentleman and doting brother to unhinged revenge-seeker, savagely brandishing a gun at the news of his father’s murder and sister’s suicide.

There are also real gunshots – ghastly bursts and flashes of light that grab the audience’s attention. It’s nowhere as free as, say, DruidShakespeare’s 2019 production of “Richard III”, or even the current Broadway staging of “Macbeth”, with his severed limbs and crotch wounds. Yet the sight and sound of a gun on stage today, given our country’s despicable relationship with guns, is unsettling.

What is most frustrating about Icke’s otherwise intriguing approach is the inessential and, by now, very unoriginal, incorporation of high technology. A grid of 12 screens hangs overhead and two larger screens flank the stage, showing security footage from the castle and reporting on the conflict between Denmark and Norway.

The screens also flash “pause” and “stop” before the two intermissions and the final scene, awkwardly drawing attention to the audience as spectators. The way Icke and lighting designer Natasha Chivers handle several of Hamlet’s monologues is more efficient; faint halos of Lawther’s overhead light as he appears to address the audience directly from the edge of the stage, only to stop when he’s finished speaking.

Tom Gibbons’ sound design envelops proceedings in a dark, eerie atmosphere: a distant howling wind; the cold, mechanical hum of statics and feedback; and, finally, the thunderous exclamations of the drums. Less appropriate are the production’s folk compositions (by Laura Marling) and use of Bob Dylan songs, which, even ironically deployed, are a bit too Midwest-porch-jam for this classy production.

“Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s plays that suffers the most from diminishing returns – adaptations that try too hard to innovate, make a classic modern and hip. Although Icke’s extended production occasionally falls into this trap, in the end the visual and technical prowess of the creative team – along with its defiant young lead – make this a tale of reverie, mania and murder for our era.

Hamlet
Through Aug. 13 at Wade Thompson Drill Hall at Park Avenue Armory; armoryonpark.org. Duration: 3h45.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: In a powerful "hamlet", a fragile prince faces his enemies
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